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State agency suspends enforcement of Lawyers’ Mall solicitation ban

30-day suspension aims to foster settlement with ACLU

Protestors gather on Lawyers’ Mall last week during the opening of the General Assembly session. The ACLU of Maryland says the spot is a ‘quintessential public forum’ and can be used for fundraising despite a state regulation banning such events. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Protestors gather on Lawyers’ Mall in Annapolis in January. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

The Department of General Services will suspend until July 11 enforcement of its controversial ban on financial solicitations on Lawyers’ Mall as the state agency tries to resolve the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland’s claim that the prohibition violates the constitutional right to free speech.

The suspension was announced Monday in DGS’ joint motion with the ACLU chapter for a 30-day stay in its federal lawsuit claiming  financial solicitations are protected speech that communicates information, presents ideas and advocates causes.

U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis on Tuesday granted the stay, which the parties stated they sought so “they can focus on a mutually acceptable resolution without the need to prepare for other upcoming events in this matter.” DGS stated in the joint motion that it agreed to the suspension “in the interest of promoting cooperative settlement discussions.”

The DGS regulation – found at Code of Maryland Regulations — prohibits solicitations except those made by national and local organizations for savings bonds, health, welfare and charity; labor unions seeking membership dues; and the U.S. armed forces and National Guard, all of which are required to get DGS’s prior approval.

The ACLU of Maryland filed the lawsuit in March after DGS declined the group’s request the ban be lifted on the mall, at the foot of the State House in Annapolis and the feet of civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall’s statue.

“The regulation at issue here is a content-based restriction on speech: It restricts solicitation on certain public grounds unless that solicitation meets one of (the) enumerated exceptions, including solicitations for charity or by labor unions,” states the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

In response, DGS called its prohibition a “common sense and sensible regulation (that) prevents political organizations from abusing state/public property” and which protects “the safety and welfare of the public.” Political organizations are “more than able to host demonstrations but cannot raise money,” DGS stated.

The ACLU alleges DGS’s “unconstitutional” prohibition forced individuals to forgo a fundraiser for Tina Frost, a Crofton resident grievously wounded during an Oct. 1 mass shooting at a Las Vegas concert.

In addition, the regulation led organizers of a “March for Racial Justice” last October to forgo an effort to raise money on the mall for another civil rights event to bring attention to the plight of minorities in Maryland, according to the lawsuit.

The case is March on Maryland Inc. et al. v. Ellington E. Churchill Jr., secretary of the Department of General Services et al., No. 1:18-cv-00701-MJG.

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